We’re off to the races – the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking, “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they’re going to be elected?”
While reading reports on the proposed strategies and “visions” of these fledgling presidential aspirants, I have been struck by two quotes that are important because they define two fundamentally flawed approaches to politics. Both quotes are only half right, and both are recipes for defeat.
The first of them came from Howard Schultz, the billionaire founder of the Starbucks coffee empire. He is exploring running for president as an independent. Schultz has described his political philosophy as being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” This formula is the one that has been adopted by so-called “centrists” – moderate Democrats and liberal Republicans. They have embraced it with such conviction that it has become, for some, the accepted wisdom of what’s needed to fix American politics. The problem with this “wisdom”, however, is that it isn’t wise at all. It doesn’t work and it fails to consider the aspirations of millions of hard working Americans.
Two decades ago, working with polling conducted by my brother, John Zogby, I wrote “What Ethnic Americans Really Think,” a study of the attitudes and voting behaviours of white ethnic Americans. The groups we initially covered were the communities of European-Mediterranean immigrants and their descendants who, for decades, have been dominant in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states.
What we found was that their views on a range of political and social issues were the exact opposite of what the centrists believed them to be. Our study found that these ethnic voters were proud of their heritage and their traditions. They believed in supporting their families and communities, and in the values of hard work and playing by the rules. At the same time, they saw government as playing an essential role in providing for the common good.
And when we compared the attitudes of these white ethnic voters with Black and Latino voters, we found that they closely matched one another. The point was that most Americans want the same things for their families and communities (good paying jobs, quality education, health care, and a safe and secure environment).
The second quote came from a senior adviser to one of the Democrats who recently announced their candidacy to run in the presidential primary. The adviser described their campaign’s strategy as focusing on “base Democratic voters.” Now while a primary, by definition, is for Democratic voters, Democrats have, for too long now, made the mistake of shaping their message and narrowly targeting their efforts on what they defined as their “base” – which has included: minority communities, educated women and young voters.
This worked for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and it was a key factor in Doug Jones’ successful 2017 senate race in very Republican Alabama. But as an overall strategy this approach of focusing on some groups, while excluding others, is a recipe for disaster.
As I noted at the outset, both quotes were one-half correct. It’s important to be inclusive and protective of the rights of all.
In 2016, Trump took advantage of this half-right approach to politics. Yes, he ran a racist campaign that attracted support from white supremacists, but he also preyed on the resentment of white voters who felt ignored/betrayed by Democrats who had a message for everyone but them. Trump coupled his “courting” with fear and even hatred of the “other.” And he replaced centrism with populism. While with a wink and a nod at the GOP establishment he made it clear that he would cut taxes and government regulations, he promised middle class voters the moon.
For Democrats to win, they need to be more than anti-Trump. They need to have a message that speaks to the aspirations of all voters and a strategy that actively courts them, as well.